Story and photos by Tony Whitney
Flying from Vancouver to Reykjavik is not that straightforward, but when there’s a new Land Rover Freelander waiting for you at the airport for a drive around Iceland, what more incentive could you wish for?
I flew to Iceland’s capital via Minneapolis and when I arrived at my ultimate destination, it was straight out on the road, with no pause at a hotel to freshen up. Not to worry though, because the folks at Land Rover thoughtfully laid on a visit to Iceland’s famed Blue Lagoon about an hour into the trip.
These natural hot springs, located in terrain strewn with black lava rock, must be the most perfect imaginable way to shake off the cobwebs after an all-night flight. I wish I could do that everywhere I go.
Iceland proved to a land of real contrasts. Part of the island is a vast desert of black volcanic rock, while other locales are quite green and verdant. Entire valleys are covered in small, barbecue-sized volcanic rocks, prompting one joker among us to remark that the country could build its economy on selling the rocks to North Americans for outdoor cooking activities. Most of the first day involved driving across a kind of volcanic desert and it wasn’t until Day Two that we saw a tree at all, and then it as a fairly modest shrub-like thing.
Click image to enlarge
But putting aside the plug for Iceland tourism (and this beautiful country does deserve plugging) let’s take a look at some Land Rover background and what took me to this isolated part of the world.
Britain’s Land Rover, now a Ford subsidiary as most readers will know, isn’t an auto manufacturer committed to a constant stream of new model introductions. In fact, since the very first Land Rover was introduced back in 1948, only seven new models have seen a launch program by my count – and that includes the new Freelander compact SUV.
Surprisingly, the Freelander sells for under $35,000 in basic form – and those are wimpy Canadian dollars, not the US kind. According to Land Rover, there were huge numbers of orders rolling in for the vehicle even before the price was announced. I would imagine now that if you want one of these, you’d better get down to your dealer in pretty short order.
Available in Europe since 1997, the Freelander was sold at launch as a permanent all wheel drive five-door model with a 175 horsepower, 2.5-litre V-6 boasting twin overhead cams and 24 valves. The powerplant is mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission and the combination worked very well in all kinds of conditions in Iceland – including some that were exceptionally demanding. Helping out here was the Freelander’s 177 pound-feet of torque.
Standard equipment includes Land Rover’s patented Hill Descent Control, power windows and air conditioning. The interior is well up to Land Rover standards and has excellent “ambiance.” Obviously, this is not a Range Rover – remember the price – but it’s got a solid, quality feel about it so people familiar with the more expensive Land Rover products won’t feel entirely out of their depth.
There are three trim levels – S, SE and HSE, in ascending order of luxury.
The cabin is very roomy and the rear stowage area very commodious. There’s a slight kick-up to the roofline like a Discovery to enhance space back there.
Interesting exterior features include dent-resistent polycarbonate front fenders which can take hard knocks without any damage. There’s also a standard heated windshield, useful in rainy, humid, conditions as well as freezing weather. The Freelander is the first Land Rover to use a unitized body – other products from the Solihull automaker use a body-on-frame system.
The original Land Rover, which many argue was the true pioneer of today’s sport utility vehicles, was a pretty basic machine (doors were an optional extra, believe it or not), but it worked well enough to establish a legendary reputation for ruggedness and reliability. If you couldn’t get there in a Land Rover, you’d never get there in anything – at least, anything on wheels. The Freelander carries on this tradition.
Since new model launches are such rare events for Land Rover, the company often stages its media programs in remote corners of the world, as befits its “safari-capable” reputation. Over the years, Land Rover has pushed its new products to the limits in such remote and storied places as Calcutta (India), Tikal (Guatemala), Sarajevo (former Yugoslavia), Kopta Kinabalu (Malaysia) and even the steppes of Mongolia.
With a launch history like this, it came as no surprise to anyone in the North American automotive media when Land Rover decided to debut the new Freelander on what it billed (Jules Verne style) as a “journey to the centre of the earth,” in Iceland.
I didn’t need too much coaxing to visit a country I’d never sampled before and Iceland did turn out to be something of an off-road paradise.
Iceland, which is not permanently covered in ice as its name might suggest, is a country of stunningly beautiful vistas, endless ribbons of deserted roads and and amazing networks of gravel and rock backroads. Some of these unpaved roads turned out to be smooth and fast, but others were plain and simple “Land Rover territory,” with fast-flowing creeks to traverse and impossibly steep boulder-strewn tracks to negotiate. I did manage to blow out a tire on a sharp chunk of volcanic rock – a common enough hazard in Iceland once you leave the main routes – but otherwise it was a problem-free three days.
Iceland is highly volcanic and geysers, hot springs and steam vents can be found almost everywhere. Parts of the island consist of vast lava fields and the more recent flows have almost no vegetation growing on them at all. The last major volcanic eruption on the island was just last year. The benefit of all this volcanic activity is a major geothermal power resource. We drove our Freelanders to one geothermal plant which supplied the capital Reykjavik via a huge 27 km long hot water pipe. I was told that it costs just $7 a month to heat a home and supply it with hot water in the region. Over 80 per cent of homes in Iceland are heated by by geothermal power.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Icelanders love sport utility vehicles and they seem to be everywhere and from just about any manufacturer worldwide who builds one. Many of the ones I saw were equipped with huge, oversized tires and even flared bodywork to accommodate them. Since our stock Freelanders negotiated even the toughest trails with ease, this fad is more likely cosmetic than practical.
We even did some driving on the steep slopes of a glacier, edging gingerly over huge and seemingly bottomless crevasses. Local entrepreneurs drive tourists around the glaciers using a fleet of Land Rover Defender 90s and 110s. For anyone seriously interested in a very different off-road experience, Iceland is highly attractive and all kinds of SUVs can be rented for such a trip. Several US airports offer flights to Iceland using the national airline, Icelandair, and its reliable Boeing 757s.
And how did the Freelander with its full-time four wheel drive perform in Iceland? Exceptionally well, as it happened, proving once again that anything Land Rover builds will take on any imaginable kind of terrain. I suppose that only Jeep can boast a similar reputation. The Freelander is being touted as the first premium small SUV, though it seemed roomy and large enough to me. The price tag should bring the Land-Rover experience to an entirely new group of SUV fans. Previously, this automakers’s products sat very firmly at the upper end of the luxury market. With the Range Rover and Discovery remaining in the Land Rover lineup, the firm now has quite literally, “something for everybody” in the SUV market.